Monday, December 03, 2007

Washington Burning

An interesting side issue of attending an army cadet pass out parade last week came by way of historical reflection. The salute is usually by canon, this year muskets, fired by the 48th Regiment of Foot re-enactment group. (pictured)

These hardly souls are trotted out regularly as a tribute to their role in the settlement of this town, Port Macquarie. I had the camera and the nosy scribe in me attracted me to the group and a bit of the story. Well I know some of the story, but we always try and winkle that extra bit.

“Did you know the 48th were part the force that burned down the White House?” Well I was aware that British troops based in Canada torched the icon building in 1814, during the 1812 war. But I didn’t know who was actually involved.

It was an exciting thought, though I always had a jaded view of the 48th, so I started doing some digging. The background:

The War of 1812 was fought between the United States of America, on one side, and Great Britain, the British North American colonies, Upper and Lower Canada, and Nova Scotia on the other.

My research tells me that the raid on the still small town of Washington was carried out by British, as opposed to Canadian forces. The Canadians were mostly engaged in border skirmishes. The 48th were stationed in Bermuda at that time although thee is some mention of them taking part in border activity.

I contacted the Royal Anglian Regiment Museum for some clarification, as the 48th has been absorbed into that regiment, but I haven’t had a response. There are a lot of question marks in the local claim.

First up, the regiment had been pretty depleted in the French wars. They were often described as a remnant regiment in the Americas and didn’t particularly distinguish themselves here in Australia.

One story I have heard is that the local aboriginals were trained and armed to keep the regiment in check. Another issue, of course, is the White House wasn’t white until the outer walls were repainted after the fire to cover the soot.

But local claims aside, the wonderful part of the attack on Washington was the Brits had finally realised the only way to fight an essentially guerrilla freedom fighting force was with guerrilla tactics. They didn’t have the forces to take Washington, but they knew they could land a serious blow to morale.

Funny, we have all this history then still keep on blundering along like the Brits trying to subdue the freedom fighters in America. I keep thinking about Vietnam, which had so many parallels to the War of Independence. Then trying the same sad game on Iraq

I can’t tell you the gallant 48th burned down the proto-White House. Perhaps some of the 48th were part of the British Naval attack on the city, but I can’t find evidence one way or another. I can’t tell you the Canadians did or didn’t do the deed, though I expect they were busy elsewhere. I just love the whole story.


D.K. Raed said...

It is a great story, thanks for reminding me! I've always heard the British were aided by french pirates in their quest to reclaim the colonies. That would be strange enough (french & english being historical enemies). But then I also read somewhere that some of the scots & irish in america provided aid to the brits. Also strange in that they had been mostly prosperous here & happy to be free of their former masters. Another rumor was about the Southern States participation behind the scenes (something about quelling the rising power of the industrial northern states). That's about all I remember from my year of High School U.S. History, thanks to Mr Fox. Well, war & conquest for power makes strange bedfellows & we shall probably never know the truth!

Cartledge said...

d.k. It is a bloody wonderful story, and one I’ve poked around for a few years without filling the blanks. I thought this lead might help, but it failed me. Ironically I was reading a Redcoats version of the War of Independence, set in the southern states, when I accosted this group. I guess it wasn’t ironic as much as timely.
I do doubt those ‘rumours’. It seems to me, with some guidance from the Brits out of Quebec, the naval force (with marines or whatever) out of Bermuda were the bulk of the raid. I’ll keep the search up over time, just because it is a puzzle to be solved.